Hortulus: The Online Graduate Journal of Medieval Studies
Vol. 2, No. 1, 2006
www.hortulus.net 32directed at Abu Ma’ shar that he had “studied astrology until he became an atheist.”
A chargeof atheism was dangerous indeed, for it threatened to implicate those students of the so-calledforeign sciences, which included medicine, the natural sciences, mathematics, geography,alchemy, and mechanics.
Such attacks on astrology were problematic for practitioners, but this did not stop astrologersfrom plying their craft in almost every domain of public life.
Thus even before the science of astrology had been fully developed, almost every court had an astrologer in residence, andArabic elites made ready use of astrologers as advisors. Despite the religious opposition itencountered, a system of astrology based on Greek learning was quite attractive to thesophisticated intellectuals of the eighth- and ninth-century Arabic world and those whoemployed them, because it promised to explain the universe in terms of a well-defined structureof interrelated bodies interacting in a predictable and logical fashion.
The founding of Baghdadin 762 is the most notable example of an elite appealing to an astrologer. The Caliph al-Mansurhad the first stone of the city laid in accordance with the astrological casting of an election,meant to determine the most propitious time for an action, by the Persian Jew Masha’allah (d.815).
Given such an important role in both courtly life and society at large, astrologers thrived in spiteof continuing opposition. They could not ignore accusations, however, that their science opposedIslamic faith. The primary motivation for these charges was the concern that a science promisingto predict the future removed any possibility for the free exercise of human will. Since free willwas just as axiomatic for the dominant expressions of the Islamic faith as for Christianity, thiswas a most serious accusation.
The Muslim astrologer whose works most influenced the West addressed this charge, and it washis justification that Albert would promote in his own defense of astrology. Abu Ma’ shar Ja’farbin Muhammad al-Balkhi, known to the West as Albumasar, was born in Khurasan in 787 anddied in Iraq in 886.
Abu Ma’ shar argued that astrology was superior to all other forms of natural philosophy. He believed it provided the basis for the other sciences, while such fields asmedicine merely expanded its principles in a narrowly utilitarian fashion.
To promoteastrology, Abu Ma’ shar wrote compendiums of astrological axioms intended as practicalmanuals.
However, he viewed himself as much more than simply a compiler of others’ ideas.He believed that all thought was derived from a single antediluvian revelation; thus, by piecingtogether elements from different sources, a scholar could arrive at a single “Truth.”
Ultimatelyhis methodology led him to an important original contribution of how to reconcile astrology withIslamic religious principles. Abu Ma’ shar introduced the concept of the “rational soul,” or man’sfree will coupled with the cognitive abilities that differentiated him from animals, which was freefrom the influence of the stars.
This soul, along with all else that a man possessed, came fromGod.
In a blending of Aristotelian and Neoplatonic ideas, Abu Ma’ shar envisioned the soul,divine gift to man, descending from the heavens through three spheres: the divine (the sphere of light), the ethereal (the eight celestial spheres), and the hylic (the sublunar core, including theEarth).
Abu Ma’ shar associated God with the Aristotelian Prime Mover, who was the efficient cause of all earthly actions, following Aristotle’s delineation of causes.
Thus God creates man, provideshim with a soul, and influences that “rational soul” toward actions; but since man has free will,this is an influence, powerful though it may be, that may be overcome through exercise of thewill.
These influences did not provide the only motivation for the soul. Since it had descended